Netflix 'The Witcher' Review: It's Pretty Good, Actually
First, I'd like to say: Henry Cavill's face scares me. It's too symmetrical and beautiful.
With that out of the way, let's continue.
When Netflix announced a series based on the widely popular "Witcher" books by Andrzej Sapkowski, I was hardly surprised. CD Projekt Red's videogame adaptation of the books made the Witcher series a pop-culture titan - it was only a matter of time until a TV or streaming executive saw the potential for money in an adaptation to the silver screen.
What did surprise me was the cast. I wasn't expecting to see Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia, the titular character. Although, in retrospect, considering Cavill's love of the books and videogames, it made sense he pushed so hard for the roll.
What was even more surprising was the vitriol directed at casting choices.
I will say this: primarily based in Slavic folklore; the Witcher books are hardly racially diverse. The TV show opted for a change of pace, casting canonically white sorceresses Fringilla and Yennefer as actors Mimi Ndiweni (British-Zimbabwean) and Anya Chalotra (British-Indian), respectively.
People were outraged.
Here's what I have to say about that:
Alienation of "the other" is a significant theme of the Witcher books. Geralt, a Witcher, is hated by others due to his yellow cat-eyes and mutations. Sorceresses are hated for their ability to do magic. Elves in the Witcher universe are hated and hunted by humans.
So quite frankly, I don't give any fucks about the ethnicity of the Witcher's cast. It's a fantasy-adventure universe. The showrunners are not creating a historical biopic. They are not portraying historical characters. They are portraying fictional characters in a world where elves, dwarves, and dragons walk (fly?) around on the daily. Railing about choosing to cast actors of color in such a universe is an indication of racism and othering that directly contradicts some of the major themes of the Witcher itself regarding alienation and discrimination. So shut up, sit down, and cool your prejudice.
Also, Sapkowski has displayed open approval for the casting-choices. Given that it's his story, I think some idiots on the internet could benefit from taking his lead and appreciating the actors for their abilities instead of their skin color.
Phew. Let's be honest: I've already rambled too much. As remediation, I'll break down the rest of this review into pros and cons.
The Witcher: Pros:
Henry Cavill as Geralt. Frightening facial symmetry aside, he kills it. There was some doubt Cavill could pull off the role because he's so pretty and canonically Witchers are... not, but he does a great job here. His voice is almost a perfect double of Voice Actor Doug Cockle's Geralt from the Witcher videogames, giving fans of the games something to bite down on. Cavill's fandom for the source material is on clear display here - he's giving it his all, and it's glorious.
Joey Batey as Jaskier. Jaskier (known as Dandelion in the Witcher videogames) is Geralt's annoying-yet-lovable sidekick. Singer/Actor Joey Batey fills that role to a T. Hell; he even plays the goddamn lute. What more do you want? He does a great job of pulling off not-so-strong dialogue and the chemistry between Batey and Cavill (who I would never ship, how dare you ask) is magnetic. The showrunners also resist the urge to overuse the character, lending to a refreshing sense of novelty when he appears on-screen. Jaskier is a much-needed ray of sunshine in an otherwise grim-dark world.
Anya Chalotra as Yennefer. She does a great job embodying a complicated character. Portraying a headstrong, insecure, ambitious character with immense power and low self-esteem masked by an arrogant veneer is a lot to ask, and she pulls it off brilliantly. She also has excellent chemistry with Cavill, which helps sell Geralt and Yennefer's tumultuous romance throughout the series.
Freya Allan as Ciri. She's awesome. She's able to match the screen presence of any actor she shares the screen with, which is impressive for an actor her age. I'm looking forward to seeing her appear in a more substantial capacity alongside Cavill in season two.
Jodhi May (Queen Calanthe), Emma Appleton (Renfri), and Adam Levy (Mousesack) all stick out as wonderful supporting actors. They do a fantastic job of helping the leads carry the story. All display a tremendous emotional range and lend the story a little more gravitas than your standard fantasy epic, something that has always set the Witcher series apart.
The practical effects are great. Though none of the monster-on-man fight scenes ever quite match the choreography of the human-on-human battles that appear in the first couple of episodes (episode one, in particular, has a fantastic fight scene to cap it off) the effects team has done a brilliant job of bringing the monsters to life. In a TV show about monster-hunting, that's kind of important.
The Witcher: Cons:
Shaky blue/green-screen work. The forest of Brokilon, for example, stands out like a sore thumb against some of the other sets as seeming particularly artificial. By no means does it ruin the show, but it does take you out of some scenes as a viewer. Some of the CGI is also fantastic, so jumping between a set that looks great and one that looks mediocre at best can be a bit jolting.
Not all dialogue is equal. Some of the writing is good, much of it is serviceable, and some is outright poor. It's not hard to see which scenes had less writing-time dedicated to them. Also, the constant use of exceedingly modern phrasing can be a bit strange. For example, Joey Batey's Jaskier will, on occasion, say things like "(sic) I guess I'm just delivering exposition" or use phrases such as "called it!" and "fair-weather friends." I'm not expecting period-accurate dialogue, but seeing slang from the last five years in a medieval-themed fantasy show was a little immersion-breaking for me.
Book-readers may find edits to the source material unnecessary. The show makes some changes to the plot of the Witcher series as displayed in the books (the show is primarily based on the literature, being influenced very little by the games) that fans of the books may not like. None of the adjustments bugged me much, but if you're a rabid fan of the books, you may be surprised by some of the storytelling choices.
It's not a great watch if you don't know anything about the Witcher. The show is filmed with non-linear plotlines that all coalesce at the end of the first season. Some scenes take place years or even decades before others, but there's no effort made to clue viewers into when and where scenes are taking place. As a book-reader, I immediately got what was going on. However, it took a friend until the fourth episode to figure out the scenes were displayed in a non-linear sequence. As a result, he had to go back and watch the first three episodes again to get the timeline straight. For viewers unfamiliar with the Witcher universe, the show's lack of linearity is probably more confusing than it is artful. The showrunners have taken this criticism into account and confirmed that the second season will be more focused in its storytelling.
Look, The Witcher is no Game of Thrones. It isn't full of political intrigue. If you're looking to scratch that itch, you won't find it here. It won't immediately be nominated for Emmy's or have historical experts raving about its depiction of medieval-esque courtly backstabbing.
What The Witcher is, is fun. It's a fantasy-adventure epic set in a grim-dark world that is different enough from other fantasy worlds to be unique and gripping. The showrunners obviously have a lot of love for the source material, and so do the actors. Even though the show will probably never reach the heights of an epic like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, it is fun as hell. With the showrunners open to criticism and obviously invested in improving season two, I'm excited to see where this one goes.